Even without a great understanding of Jazz, this can be a great learning opportunity for you and your students to enjoy and appreciate this great music.
Here's 7 cool ways to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month Every April
1. Create interest by having some great jazz music playing on your boombox or SmartBoard when students arrive for rehearsals and lessons. (This can be for Band, Orchestra, Chorus, Chamber Orchestra, General Music.) Each day, pick a new tune to feature, and if you have a SmartBoard, display links to the artist and the YouTube video. (If you don't have access to a SmartBoard, write down the performer's name, instrument, name of the tune, the recording, and some info on the tune/artist.) If you are an Orchestra teacher, but don't think there's a good connection to featuring jazz, why not feature artists like Charlie Parker with Strings, any of Miles Davis and Gil Evans pieces with orchestra, Cannonball Adderley with Strings – you get the point. This can open up your students' ears to hearing jazz voicings in string instruments. Chamber orchestras can feature Jazz String Quartets (like the Kronos Quartet), or such great artists as Regina Carter (violin).
2. Have group improvisations during rehearsals. Teach your students a simple song by ear that only uses I (Tonic) and V7 (Dominant) chords. You can do this over a series of lessons. Here's the process:
- Sing the melody and play a simple piano accompaniment many times while they listen and move to the strong beats on 2 & 4.
- After you have sung the melody at least 5 times, have the group sing the melody, while you play a basic accompaniment.
- Teach them the bass line in the same way.
- Divide the group in half and have one half sing the melody while the other sings the bass line; don't forget to switch the parts.
- Teach the inner harmonies by having the 3rd of the Tonic chord going to the 7th of the Dominant chord, so that there's stepwise motion. (For example, if you are in the key of C, the 3rd, “E”, would move up to the 7th of the “G” chord, which is “F”.) The other harmony can linger on the 5th of the Tonic (if in the key of C, that would be “G”) which is the root of the Dominant chord. These inner harmonies can start out as whole note rhythms.
- Students can play these inner harmony parts as whole notes on their instruments.
- Divide the group into 4 sections (melody, harmony, harmony, bass), and have them sing, then play on instruments, each part as whole note rhythms.
- Have the students sing their “part” using any rhythm they want (improvising just the rhythms) on the chosen note for their group.
- Have the students play their improvised rhythms for their “part” on their instruments.
- For the advanced groups, you can teach them the arpeggios of the Tonic and Dominant chords. Students can sing, then play the arpeggios of the chords, with simple quarter note rhythms.
- Students can improvise rhythms to the arpeggio notes they choose from each chord.
- As extra credit, you can teach students about passing notes that they can add to their improvisations. Have one section play the bass line, 2 other sections play the inner harmony static notes (3rd-7th and 5th-1st) with improvised rhythms, and have the melody section use notes from the arpeggios and add passing tones.
This will not only be fun, it will open up your students' ears to hearing and singing harmony parts and feeling syncopated rhythms in a safe environment since the whole group is singing and performing at the same time. A great resource for this process is Christopher Azzara's series, Developing Musicianship Through Improvisation, where he explains this whole process in great detail.
Here is a link to an article Azzara wrote on Improvisation and Choral Musicianship that can apply to all music directors. This article outlines a comprehensive process to teaching students how to improvise.
Here is a great TedX presentation by Azzara on Learning Jazz:
3. Articulation is a key concept is Jazz. You can teach common jazz articulations in lessons or at rehearsals. Use a common scale you warm-up on, play a different articulation on each pitch that the students will echo. Percussionists can establish a Swing feel, Bossa Nova or other Latin beat, or a Shuffle feel. Other percussionists can work on their Bells/Mallet instruments by playing the patterns with the band. Those students that have difficulty articulating may be motivated to work on their articulation in order to play some pretty cool patterns. For advanced students, use the pitches of the arpeggios in each pattern. This will improve your students' ear training skills.
4. Create Jazz versions/arrangements of simple folk songs for your beginner and intermediate level students. This can open their ears to new possibilities for playing popular tunes. Every year, I had my 3rd Grade Recorder students learn Jazzy Hot Cross Buns and perform it at the Spring Concert every year. I would enlist the help of my 5th Grade percussionists to provide the groove, and I would play basic rhythmic accompaniment on the piano. You can do this with Mary Had a Little Lamb, Ode to Joy, Jingle Bells, My Dredyl, etc.
5. In the Fall of every year, plan ahead for April and get a jazz quartet or small ensemble (enlist the services of your local college's jazz department) to perform for the school. If possible, try to arrange for a couple of masterclasses for your students. This will give valuable teaching experience to the college students. If you teach on the elementary or middle school level, get the high school jazz band to present an informal concert. This can inspire the youngest of students to not only practice more, but also continue on their instrument. These students look up to their peers as role models. This is a great way to provide good examples of positive activities and experiences.
6. Host a special field trip for your music program students to attend a local Jazz Band or Orchestra (or Jazz Choir) performance. You can justify this as learning history and perhaps collaborating with Social Studies teachers who are teaching units on the Roaring Twenties, the Blues (with its beginnings coming from oppression of African Americans) or the early 1900's (Ragtime). Listening to the music from a certain time period can help students better comprehend what life was like.
7. Run a Jam Session once a month for your students to learn to play and improvise jazz and blues standards in a safe environment. If you live in a town where there are a lot of great jazz artists, perhaps they would be willing to come down and perform with your students. You can sell tickets, give 50% of the proceeds to the guest artist and your program gets the remaining 50%. As Chris Azzara stated in his TedX Talk, people equate Improvisation with 2 4-letter words: Jazz and Fear. Monthly jam sessions can start to take out the Fear Factor.
8. In New York every March for Music in Our Schools Month, our school participates in the Harry Chapin Practice-a-Thon, where students would get friends and family members to sponsor the number of minutes practiced for the month. This great idea accomplishes 2 goals: practice motivation for the students and raising money for worthy causes.
Why not have a Jazz-a-Thon during April? This could include many activities, such as:
- Students logging in the number of minutes they practiced jazz or listened to jazz for the month of April.
- Holding a marathon Jazz concert that would consist of District Jazz Bands, student jazz combos, vocal choirs, quartets, duos, trios and all kinds of combinations performing Jazz and Blues. This can also be made into a fundraising venture for your program as well.
- Students can create and improvise a solo everyday (and log it by recording audio or video).
- General Music classes can explore a different Jazz artist each session, and create a culminating project at the end of the month, like a collage or interactive story or timeline.
There are many great ways to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month every April, even if your background in Jazz is limited. As teachers, we are always striving to learn more and become better teachers and performers. Make the atmosphere fun and safe so that everyone can enjoy the music and learn. You never know, you may inspire one of your students to a lifetime love of Jazz!
Now I would like to hear from you. Do you have other Cool ways to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month? Have you incorporated any of my ideas? How did they work out? Let me know in the Comments below – I read every single one….
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(This article also appeared in NafMe's blog, Music in a Minuet.)